The modern folding knife as we know it began with the Buck 110 Folding Hunter. This is the knife that legitimized the folding, locking knife as a tool–both for hunting and for the larger realm of everyday cutting tasks.
Of course, history is one thing and usefulness another, and looking at the Buck 110 today it is easy to dismiss it as a knife that, though historically important, can’t compete with the folders of today. The knife is heavy, it doesn’t have a clip, it has cheap steel. Yet the Buck 110 is still around, and not just because it is a milestone in cutlery. The Buck 110 is still an excellent all-purpose outdoor knife.
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A Deeper Look at the Buck 110
The Buck Knife Company was incorporated in 1961. Two years after that the Buck 110 began development, and it was released in 1964. There were many firsts: it was the first folding knife that was large enough, and competently-built enough, to withstand the strain of demanding tasks like skinning game.
It was one of the first popular knives to feature the lockback, a lock that combined ease of use and maintenance with strength.
And perhaps most importantly, it was a high-performance tool released at an affordable price; its widespread availability and low-cost meant that anybody who wanted a good, reliable blade could get one without having to go to a custom maker.
The Buck 110 was the inspiration for many of Buck’s subsequent designs:
- The 501 Squire
- The 503 Prince
- The 505 Knight
- The 112 Ranger
- The 55
The two closest relations are the 112, a smaller version of the 110, and the 55, which, as the numeral implies, is half the size of its predecessor.
The 110 celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014, and has been made in the USA without interruption since its debut.
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The Buck 110 features a handle that would seem plain if it were not so effective and refined. A simple, gentle curve allows for multiple grips and doesn’t generate hotspots, and the thickness of the covers (the knife is over an inch across!) fills the hand. The 110’s handle design is so good, in fact, that even scaling it down for the 112 or 55 doesn’t diminish its effectiveness.
The one area in which there could be a problem is in the smoothness of the materials. The 110 is made out of brass with Dymondwood covers—two very slick materials. This wouldn’t be a huge issue if you were using the knife to make feather sticks or slice up food at your campsite, but when used to skin an animal, for instance, it’s going to get wet and, thus, very slick.
But slickness is often overplayed when people discuss knives–even a slippery knife is safe if used thoughtfully and carefully. It won’t affect performance unless you aren’t paying attention—and, of course, you should always be paying attention when using a knife.
The issue is, though, that if we are given a choice between slick or grippy handles, we would choose grippy; and there are many, many knives that have better traction than the Buck 100.
What saves the Buck 110, though, is the comfort of the handle; not many knives are this comfortable in the hand; Buck really outdid themselves in this department.
The 110 features an iconic 3 ¾” clip point blade. It has a long straight portion for woodworking/food prep, and a belly and aggressive tip for finer work. It is a great “all-arounder” and, like the handle, you can easily see why Buck has left it unchanged for 50 years.
That is not to say it is without issues. Bob Loveless, an incomparable knifemaker, invented the Loveless Drop Point Hunter; like the 110, it was a sea-change for cutlery in general. But the reason I bring it up here is because of the blade shape: the drop point, in which the tip of the knife is, well, dropped, is generally agreed upon to be better for working with game, because with the lower, less aggressive tip, there is less chance of accidentally puncturing the guts and spoiling the meat or pelt.
I’ve always thought it was odd, then, that the Buck 110, ostensibly a folding hunting knife, utilized a clip point. But ultimately this is a similar situation to the slickness of the handles, where a little bit of sense when you’re field-dressing will prevent a lot of heartache.
As long as you’re careful, you’ll find that the Buck 110’s blade is as useful for working with game as it is for cutting up wood or slicing food.
The 112 and 55 both have the exact same blade shape. The 112 comes in at 3”, making it useful for many of the same tasks, but the 55, which is a diminutive 2 3/8”, is much more suited for opening letters or peeling apples than it is for dressing game.
Buck has been using 420HC for a long time. While it is nobody’s idea of a super steel, there are still reasons why it garners a bit of respect and recommendation.
First and foremost is the heat treat. As any steel aficionado (head over to the forum at Cliff Stamp to learn more) will tell you, a steel is only as good as its heat treat. Buck had Paul Bos, one of the cutlery industry’s foremost heat treat experts, devise the process they use to treat their 420HC. The result is a steel that’s performing at the absolute pinnacle of its ability.
It can take a crazy wicked edge, and keep it for a decent amount of time. The best part, however, is that it sharpens so easily; the 110 can go from dull to scary sharp in fifteen minutes. It really is incredible, and is representative of the “average user” mentality of the 110 in general: a hunter may have a very rudimentary hunting knife sharpener in the field, as well as little skill or time, so why burden him or her with a crazy steel that needs an hour on a grinder wheel to get a functional edge back on it?
Also, the softness and ability to sharpen means that the edge bounces back from deformation and chipping like a champ—and both of these things are not uncommon in the outdoors, as any camper or hiker can tell you.
All in all, 420HC, as it comes from Buck, is one of the all-time great user steels. It is unpretentious and no-nonsense, and will do whatever you ask of it.
The 110 is heavy. Like, twice as heavy as a modern folding knife suitable for the same tasks (like the Paramilitary 2). At nearly 8 oz., there is no way you’d want to carry this around with you every day. Moreover, you really wouldn’t want to carry it in your pocket at all; this is a knife that cries out for a belt sheath.
Some versions of the Buck 110 come with one in the box, but they are available separately either way. Belt sheaths are totally viable in the outdoors, and in some ways are better than pocket carry: they’re very secure, so the knife isn’t likely to fall out, but they are also more visible, so even if it did you would know sooner than if the knife fell out of your pocket.
That being said they are more obtrusive, and add additional weight.
The 112 is still pretty chunky at 5.6 oz., but the 55 is under 2 oz., and can be pocketed like a slipjoint traditional. Of the three, I’d say the 112 fares the worst in this category. Its in-between size make it less useful for outdoor tasks, and the weight makes it unsuitable for everyday carry. The 110 is feasible; you just need to know what you’re getting into before you take it along.
The 110’s simple lockback has worked since day 1, and hasn’t really been improved upon.
Keeping the tab that lifts the lock at the tail end of the knife is nice, because it precludes accidental closure when you grip it hard during heavy duty cuts.
Lockup is not without issues, it must be said. Buck in general has had a problem with fit and finish for a long time, and the tolerances on the 110 are emblematic of that: there is tactile blade play in every direction when the knife is open.
It is the horizontal play that is the issue here, but it isn’t a deal breaker. The play isn’t pronounced enough to be a safety issue or to interfere with cuts, and the knife is solid in the ways that count. It is more of a shame than anything else: Buck, one of the quintessential American knifemakers, can’t offer fit and finish equal to some of the newer knife companies like Kershaw or Spyderco.
The Buck 110 is a stone cold classic. And while there is no denying that it has aged, it has done so gracefully. It may not be as light as newer knives, and the steel may be fairly unexciting, but this is a knife that is designed to be taken out into the woods and used without having to worry about it. For $40 you can have a functional piece of American knife making history. The Buck 110 is a legend, and one that every modern knife user should experience.
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